Monday, October 03, 2005

Life and death on a creek with no name

Part 2 of 4

Moving water knows only one direction. Down it goes, and down, always seeking the path of least resistance. And if we are to know a creek, a stream, a river, we must see as it sees, how each waterworn stone, each blade of grass or shrub or bankside tree, each oxbow or cutbank or run, each gravel bar or exposed root, owes its shape and placement to the insistence of the water’s progress. But before I can follow this little creek down I must see it as it never sees itself. I must do what it can never do. I must first go up.

It wasn’t far. Down the road to where it turns west, into a field chest-high with grass and thorntrees and white asters crowned with yellow and orange butterflies, past gnarled clusters of scarlet-stemmed pokeweed heavy with their deadly purplish berries, angling lower toward the dark line of trees delineating the perennial creek whose name may be Juganine or may be nothing at all, as if that could be, a thing on the earth without a name. When even the tiniest insect carries its own appellation by which it is recognizable, when every star has its own number, every flower and seed its own nomenclature. When to be innominate is to be cast off or worthless, and why should that be when this little creek or ravine or gully (words already falter under its namelessness!) is singularly responsible for divorcing the westernmost two streets from the town proper as if we were a peninsula jutting into a sea of grass, so that as I walked it was if my steps led into a deep forest a thousand miles from civilization, and only the towering grain elevator shining white in the sunlight anchoring me to this place. Juganine, or something else? I had my ideas, my own dreams, dreams that lay dormant for years and now stirred to life. This creek would have a name. It would be given by me. I passed under the foliage, stepped down a grassy declivity, and stood in a sandy scrape patterned with the tracks of raccoon and deer.

My hiking stick tap-tapped the sun-dappled gravel, its carbide tip skittering off larger stones to sink into the soft damp sand. An elongate pool lay hard against the right bank, sprinkled with the first golden leaves marking autumn’s arrival. Narrow-mouthed toads, looking like formless lumps of clay, leaped into the water leaving ghostly contrails of silt. The stream snaked into a clearing, one bank carved deeply into the rich fertile soil, grass thatched, stratified with shards of flint and limestone and geodes. Sunflowers and ragweed grew prolific in the sudden light, and then I plunged back into the shadow world.

A deep gash on my left indicated the confluence of the eastern branch. It was narrow, choked with deadfall and laced with cobwebs. I realized here that any idea I had of keeping to the stream channel was irrevocably doomed. This was not the headwaters of the Pecos River but a prairie creek of such slow-moving pace that all manner of vegetation grew abundant and riotous, and occasionally broke free to float downstream and wedge in impenetrable barriers.

My goal was to keep to the main branch, which topographic maps indicated came in from the west. I passed an opening on my left where sumac blazed scarlet and the air glittered with dragonflies. Beyond it the channel was filled with large stones, scattered as if toys left behind by some gigantic child. The elevation steepened. Hopping from stone to stone, I passed beneath the railroad trestle far above me and entered a wide level curve pitted with the tracks of cows. The middle branch was a narrow cedar-choked ravine. A few hundred feet beyond I stumbled over a huge fallen cottonwood and faced an array of cows staring intently at me. They seemed in no hurry to move. I was in no hurry to disturb them, so I retreated to the middle branch. My plans were already coming undone.

Up I went, sometimes walking in the channel itself, sometimes forced to find a path beside it. I came to a downfall and skirted it and the narrow game trail led me past a deep cut at least 20 feet in depth. It appeared to be carved by a tremendous force of water, abruptly culminating in a sharp drop-off with a gentle valley beyond. Spider webs made lattices between the trees, and I hewed them apart with my hiking stick.

The final section of streambed was impassable. I broke out into the deep grasses and walked beside it. Up I went, and up, the valley opening at my back and a Cooper’s hawk rising past on a thermal. Only at the crest of the hill did I stop and look back to see the creek as water sees it, and I could not because of the vegetation. There was no rivulet or snowfield but a shallow bowl.

I looked out and saw the green path tumbling to the Big Blue and plunged down, elated and happier than I could remember, stepping fast, moving free as water, seeing how it cut and carved and wore and eroded and cascaded over the detritus of aged woods. How it was sometimes gentle and sometimes temperamental and always lovely beyond the telling. How it was like a woman. I will name this Lori Creek, I swore. I will mark the land forever with her name. Not Juganine, but a name worthy of its beauty.

Down I went, down like water, until I saw the west fork through the cedars and a dark shape to my left and the drone of insects was like a scream and the dark shape turned its head and swiveled its ears toward me and where its eyes should be were two seeping white stumps. I froze in shock.

It was a calf, wandered blind into a deadfall, kneeling now as if expecting rescue or death and not caring which came first. Iridescent blowflies matted its fur. A long ropy tongue flicked out and wet its greasy back and the flies rose and settled again.

I backed away from the horrific sight, suddenly queasy, cognizant of its helplessness, and my own. Its sightless eyes tracked my footfalls as I left it behind.

Down I went, down like water, but I had already reached a depth no stream could reach.

(To be continued)

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